Normal is Overrated

From classrooms to conversations to media, a handful of UMSL community members aim to expand perspectives about disability during a series of interactive events March 15 to 18. (Graphic courtesy Lauren Obermark)

“What difference does disability make? And how does disability provide insight?”

It’s questions like these that a guest scholar will ask of students, faculty and staff at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in the coming days as the College of Arts & Sciences presents “Normal is Overrated: Disability in the 21st Century” March 15 to 18.

“Often, disability is understood in a limited way, and people make some assumptions – for instance, many people think about disability in strictly medical terms,” says Assistant Professor of English Lauren Obermark, who has organized the effort alongside fellow UMSL faculty and students. “Next week’s events approach disability as a category of identity, one that can indeed be positive and worth celebrating.”

Through film and artwork viewings, syllabus workshops and more, visiting professor Brenda Jo Brueggemann of the University of Louisville will lead interested UMSL participants in a wide-ranging exploration of disability. Her brief residency at UMSL is the first to take place as part of a CAS-grant-funded visiting scholars program.

Brenda Brueggemann

College of Arts & Sciences Visiting Scholar Brenda Jo Brueggemann, director of composition at the University of Louisville, says the “Normal is Overrated: Disability in the 21st Century” series will explore disability from all sorts of angles – artistic, historical, medical, institutional and educational. (Photo courtesy Brenda Brueggemann)

“Dr. Brueggemann is the perfect person to guide these events, as she has a long career as both a scholar and teacher exploring the complex intersections of deafness, language and pedagogy,” says Obermark, adding that the title of the series illustrates its broad relevance. “She is a gifted professor who always makes discussions about disability engaging, accessible and exciting.”

Interest in the field of disability studies is already growing at UMSL, according to several of Obermark’s own students.

“Ever since I took her Introduction to Rhetoric course last spring, I’ve realized that a part of my pedagogy is social justice,” says senior English major Justin Yancey, who has been thinking a lot about his own approach to teaching and scholarship as he looks toward graduate school. “As a queer person, I know what it’s like to experience injustice, so I want to bring social-justice issues into the composition classroom. And in a disability studies seminar this semester, I’m learning so much more about Universal Design for Learning, which is a kind of educational framework to make courses accessible to all students so that they can succeed.”

The field has also become increasingly important on a personal note to members of the UMSL community including alumna Racheal White, who has spent much of her life living with a rare lung disease and is on the planning committee for “Normal is Overrated.”

“When I was a child, my illness was visible due to the treatment I used, and I remember some girls on the playground saying, in reference to the fanny pack that held my intravenous medication, ‘Ew. That’s gross,'” White says. “As treatment changed, my illness became invisible, but the repercussions of living with an illness never left me. I continued to feel ‘abnormal.'”

During her time as a student at UMSL, White only opened up to a few people about her chronic illness and sense of otherness. But after taking a course with Obermark focused on social justice and inclusivity, she says, that began to change.

“Disability studies helped me realize that hiding my life story and my disease is a form of oppression,” White says. “I have nothing to be ashamed of in talking about my illness – it has made me the person I am today.”

The week’s focus may lead naturally from discussions about disability to touch on a range of other identities and issues such as race, gender and sexuality, Obermark notes, with all of the events interactive in some respect.

“Over the 18 months or so since Michael Brown was killed, and then with the protests surrounding Mizzou this past fall, I think UMSL has been forced to think more critically about what it means to be a diverse, public, urban institution,” she says. “I’ve been proud to see the campus hold conversations and workshops to think about what it means to be more inclusive and better serve the university community – from students, to surrounding neighborhoods, to those who work here. In some ways, the work of ‘Normal is Overrated’ aims to take such conversations even further.”

Brueggemann, whose scholarly work in the field over the last decade has resulted in two single-authored books, has seen firsthand the myriad ways in which disability studies can enrich academia. She gives a recent art and film project at her home institution as just one example.

“For many of the citizens with developmental disabilities who had participated in the workshop and were featured in the film, this was their first time ever on the university’s campus – even though the Council on Developmental Disabilities office is less than a mile away, straight up the street,” she says. “Many campus citizens also came out for the event, and the true mix of ‘town and gown’ was very meaningful.”

She also sees attention to disability having an impact in her own classroom, where she is currently teaching a general education course titled “Disability in Anglophone Literature,” with volumes such as Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” looming large.

“A literature professor colleague of mine was puzzled about how and why I was teaching ‘Jane Eyre’ in a course about disability,” says Brueggemann, “but my students claimed – without my prompting – in the end that the story as we know it simply does not exist if disability is taken out of it.”

Brueggemann’s pedagogy is also deeply informed by the field as she continually finds ways to turn her own “hearing loss [into] a ‘deaf gain’ move” that elicits more learning and collaboration among her students as they share ownership of class conversation.

“I’m deaf myself,” she says. “Access to education (and many things) has not always been easy in my life. I want a different world for other students now.”

For the full rundown of “Normal is Overrated” events on and off UMSL’s campus March 15 to 18, see the flier.

Evie Hemphill

Evie Hemphill